Unconventional Justice

In December, 1814, a steamboat was set in motion on the Limehouse Canal, the Lord Mayor and other distinguished persons being on board. In the same month Joanna Southcott died. She had announced that on the 19th October she was to be delivered of the Prince of Peace, although she was then sixty years old. Thousands of persons believed her, and a cradle was made. The Prince of Peace did not arrive, and in a little more than two months poor Joanna had departed, the cause of her departure having being certified as dropsy. Death did not diminish the number of her disciples, for they took refuge in the hope of her resurrection. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” they truly affirmed; and even to this day there are people who are waiting for the fulfilment of Joanna’s prophecies and the appearance of the “second Shiloh.” Zachariah had been frequently twitted in joke by his profane companions in the printing-office upon his supposed belief in the delusion. It was their delight to assume that all the “pious ones,” as they called them, were alike; and on the morning of the 30th of December, the day after Joanna expired, they were more than usually tormenting. Zachariah did not remonstrate. In his conscientious eagerness to bear witness for his Master, he had often tried his hand upon his mates; but he had never had the smallest success, and had now desisted. Moreover, his thoughts were that morning with his comrades, the Friends of the People. He hummed to himself the lines from Lara⁠—

“Within that land was many a malcontent,
Who cursed the tyranny to which he bent;
That soil full many a wringing despot saw,
Who worked his wantonness in form of law:
Long war without and frequent broil within
Had made a path for blood and giant sin.”

The last meeting had been unusually exciting. Differences of opinion had arisen as to future procedure, many of the members, the Secretary included, advocating action; but what they understood by it is very difficult to say. A special call had been made for that night, and Zachariah was in a difficulty. His native sternness and detestation of kings and their ministers would have led him almost to any length; but he had a sober head on his shoulders. So had the Major, and so had Caillaud. Consequently they held back, and insisted, before stirring a step towards actual revolution, that there should be some fair chance of support and success. The Major in particular warned them of the necessity of drill; and plainly told them also that, not only were the middle classes all against them, but their own class was hostile. This was perfectly true, although it was a truth so unpleasant that he had to endure some very strong language, and even hints of treason. No wonder: for it is undoubtedly very bitter to be obliged to believe that the men whom we want to help do not themselves wish to be helped. To work hard for those who will thank us, to head a majority against oppressors, is a brave thing; but far more honour is due to the Maitlands, Caillauds, Colemans, and others of that stamp who strove for thirty years from the outbreak of the French revolution onwards, not merely to rend the chains of the prisoners, but had to achieve the more difficult task of convincing them that they would be happier if they were free. These heroes are forgotten, or nearly so. Who remembers the poor creatures who met in the early mornings on the Lancashire moors or were shot by the yeomanry? They sleep in graves over which stands no tombstone, or probably their bodies have been carted away to make room for a railway which has been driven through their resting-place. They saw the truth before those whom the world delights to honour as its political redeemers; but they have perished utterly from our recollection, and will never be mentioned in history. Will there ever be a great Day of Assize when a just judgment shall be pronounced; when all the impostors who have been crowned for what they did not deserve will be stripped, and the Divine word will be heard calling upon the faithful to inherit the kingdom⁠—who, when “I was an hungered gave me meat, when I was thirsty gave me drink; when I was a stranger took me in; when I was naked visited me; when I was in prison came unto me?” Never! It was a dream of an enthusiastic Galilean youth, and let us not desire that it may ever come true. Let us rather gladly consent to be crushed into indistinguishable dust, with no hope of record: rejoicing only if some infinitesimal portion of the good work may be achieved by our obliteration, and content to be remembered only in that anthem which in the future it will be ordained shall be sung in our religious services in honour of all holy apostles and martyrs who have left no name.

The night before the special meeting a gentleman in a blue cloak, and with a cigar in his mouth, sauntered past the entrance to Carter’s Rents, where Mr. Secretary lived. It was getting late, but he was evidently not in a hurry, and seemed to enjoy the coolness of the air, for presently he turned and walked past the entrance again. He took out his watch⁠—it was a quarter to eleven o’clock⁠—and he cursed Mr. Secretary and the beer-shops which had probably detained him. A constable came by, but never showed himself in the least degree inquisitive; although it was odd that anybody should select Carter’s Rents for a stroll. Presently Mr. Secretary came in sight, a trifle, but not much, the worse for liquor. It was odd, also, that he took no notice of the blue cloak and cigar, but went straight to his own lodging. The other, after a few moments followed; and it was a third time odd that he should find the door unbolted and go upstairs. All this, we say, would have been strange to a spectator, but it was not so to these three persons. Presently the one first named found himself in Mr. Secretary’s somewhat squalid room. He then stood disclosed as the assistant whom the Secretary had first seen at Whitehall sitting in the Commissioner’s Office. This was not the second nor third interview which had taken place since then.

“Well, Mr. Hardy, what do you want here tonight?”

“Well, my friend, you know, I suppose. How goes the game?”

“D⁠—m me if I do know. If you think I am going to split, you are very much mistaken.”

“Split! Who wants you to split? Why, there’s nothing to split about. I can tell you just as much as you can tell me.”

“Why do you come here then?”

“For the pleasure of seeing you, and to⁠—” Mr. Hardy put his hand carelessly in his pocket, a movement which was followed by a metallic jingle⁠—“and just to⁠—to⁠—explain one or two little matters.”

The Secretary observed that he was very tired.

“Are you? I believe I am tired too.”

Mr. Hardy took out a little case-bottle with brandy in it, and the Secretary, without saying a word, produced two mugs and a jug of water. The brandy was mixed by Mr. Hardy; but his share of the spirit differed from that assigned to his friend.

“Split!” he continued; “no, I should think not. But we want you to help us. The Major and one or two more had better be kept out of harm’s way for a little while; and we propose not to hurt them, but to take care of them a bit, you understand? And if, the next time, he and the others will be there⁠—we have been looking for the Major for three or four days, but he is not to be found in his old quarters⁠—we will just give them a call. When will you have your next meeting? They will be all handy then.”

“You can find that out without my help. It’s tomorrow.”

“Ah! I suppose you’ve had a stormy discussion. I hope your moderate counsels prevailed.”

Mr. Secretary winked and gave his head a twist on one side, as if he meant thereby to say: “You don’t catch me.”

“It’s a pity,” continued Mr. Hardy, taking no notice, “that some men are always for rushing into extremities. Why don’t they try and redress their grievances, if they have any, in the legitimate way which you yourself propose⁠—by petition?”

It so happened that a couple of hours before, Mr. Secretary having been somewhat noisy and insubordinate, the Major had been obliged to rule him out of order and request his silence. The insult⁠—for so he considered it⁠—was rankling in him.

“Because,” he replied, “we have amongst us two or three d⁠⸺⁠d conceited, stuck-up fools, who think they are going to ride over us. By God, they are mistaken though! They are the chaps who do all the mischief. Not that I’d say anything against them⁠—no, notwithstanding I stand up against them.”

“Do all the mischief⁠—yes, you’ve just hit it. I do believe that if it were not for these fellows the others would be quiet enough.”

The Secretary took a little more brandy and water. The sense of wrong within him was like an open wound, and the brandy inflamed it. He also began to think that it would not be a bad thing for him if he could seclude the Major, Caillaud, and Zachariah for a season. Zachariah in particular he mortally hated.

“What some of these fine folks would like to do, you see, Mr. Hardy, is to persuade us poor devils to get up the row, while they direct it. Direct it, that’s their word; but we’re not going to be humbugged.”

“Too wide awake, I should say.”

“I should say so too. We are to be told off for the Bank of England, and they are to show it to us at the other end of Cheapside.”

“Bank of England,” said Mr. Hardy, laughing; “that’s a joke. You might run your heads a long while against that before you get in. You don’t drink your brandy and water.”

The Secretary took another gulp. “And he’s a military man⁠—a military man⁠—a military man.” He was getting rather stupid now, and repeated the phrase each of the three times with increasing unsteadiness, but also with increasing contempt.

Mr. Hardy took our his watch. It was getting on towards midnight. “Goodbye; glad to see you all right,” and he turned to leave. There was a jingling of coin again, and when he had left Mr. Secretary took up the five sovereigns which had found their way to the table and put them in his pocket. His visitor picked his way downstairs. The constable was still pacing up and down Carter’s Rents, but again did not seem to observe him, and he walked meditatively to Jermyn Street. He was at his office by half-past nine, and his chief was only half-an-hour later.

The Major had thought it prudent to change his address; and, furthermore, it was the object of the Government to make his arrest, with that of his colleagues, at the place of meeting, not only to save trouble, but because it would look better. Mr. Hardy had found out, therefore, all he wanted to know, and was enabled to confirm his opinion that the Major was the head of the conspiracy.

But underneath Mr. Secretary’s mine was a deeper mine; for as the Major sat at breakfast the next morning a note came for him, the messenger leaving directly he delivered it to the servant. It was very brief:⁠—“No meeting tonight. Warn all except the Secretary, who has already been acquainted.” There was no signature, and he did not know the handwriting. He reflected for a little while, and then determined to consult Caillaud and Coleman, who were his informal Cabinet. He had no difficulty in finding Coleman, but the Caillauds were not at home, and it was agreed that postponement could do no harm. A message was therefore left at Caillaud’s house, and one was sent to every one of the members, but two or three could not be discovered.

Meanwhile Mr. Secretary, who, strange to say, had not been acquainted, had been a little overcome by Mr. Hardy’s brandy on the top of the beer he had taken beforehand, and woke in the morning very miserable. Finding the five guineas in his pocket, he was tempted to a public-house hard by, in order that he might cool his stomach and raise his spirits with a draught or two of ale. He remained there a little too long, and on reaching home was obliged to go to bed again. He awoke about six, and then it came into his still somewhat confused brain that he had to attend the meeting. At half-past seven he accordingly took his departure. Meanwhile the Major and Zachariah had determined to post themselves in Red Lion Street, to intercept those of their comrades with whom they had not been able to communicate, and also to see what was going to happen. At a quarter to eight the Secretary turned out of Holborn, and when he came a little nearer, Zachariah saw that at a distance of fifty yards there was a constable following him. He came on slowly until he was abreast of a narrow court, when suddenly there was a pistol-shot, and he was dead on the pavement. Zachariah’s first impulse was to rush forward, but he saw the constable running, followed by others, and he discerned in an instant that to attempt to assist would lead to his own arrest and do no good. He managed, however, to reach the Major, and for two or three moments they stood stock-still on the edge of the pavement struck with amazement. Presently a woman passed them with a thick veil over her face.

“Home,” she said; “don’t stay here like fools. Pack up your things and be off. You’ll be in prison tomorrow morning.”

“Be off!” gasped Zachariah; “be off!⁠—where?”

“Anywhere!” and she had gone.

The constables, after putting the corpse in a hackney coach, proceeded to the room; but it was dark and empty. They had no directions to do anything more that night, and returned to Bow Street. The next morning, however, as soon as it was light, a Secretary of State’s warrant, backed by sufficient force, was presented at the lodgings of Caillaud and Zachariah. The birds had flown, and not a soul could tell what had become of them. In Zachariah’s street, which was rather a Radical quarter, the official inquiries were not answered politely, and one of the constables received on the top of his head an old pail with slops in it. The minutest investigation failed to discover to whom the pail belonged.